Opera soprano Christine Goerke had never even thought about taking on Eboli, the princess in Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos. "This role is most often sung by mezzo sopranos. I had never considered it for that reason and I'd never really given it a good look."
But when Houston Grand Opera Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers called and offered it to her -- and she initially resisted -- he asked if she'd looked at the score and noted, "It's really written the same way as all the German dramatic parts," Goerke says.
"It gets down into the middle, which basically means it either needs a mezzo with a very strong top or a soprano with a very strong middle. So I went and got ahold of the score and I just fell in love with it; the music is amazing; the story is amazing."
So that's why Goerke, last seen in Houston in the light comic opera Ariadne auf Naxos, will be pouring out her heart and dishing out vengeance in the upcoming HGO production of a piece written in French -- it was commissioned for the great Paris Exposition of 1867 by the Paris Opera -- by the renowned Italian director.
The basic plot is this: Don Carlos is the son of the Spanish king, Philippe II. Don Carlos is engaged to marry Elisabeth de Valois of France -- a marriage designed to end the enmity between the two countries -- but then dad, who is without a wife, decides he, not his son, will marry Elisabeth.
Don Carlos and Elisabeth have already met, declared undying love, but she doesn't hesitate to do her duty and marry Philippe. Goerke's character, Princess Eboli, is King Philippe's mistress and says she's in love with Don Carlos. It's after Don Carlos rejects Eboli that she unleashes her demons, telling Philippe that his son and Elisabeth still love each other and basically bringing in the whole Spanish Inquisition to take care of things.
In the end, Princess Eboli is remorseful but an awful lot of damage has been done. Goerke sums up her character this way:
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"I think she thinks she's in love with Carlos. They don't really know each other that well. She's having this affair with the king. She's a princess. She fancies that she should be queen. There was no queen at the time. Perhaps she thought she should be next in line and then magically this French woman shows up and takes over the place. They do become friends and that's why in the end she tells her everything. She realizes how wrong she was and how awful she feels, but the damage is already done. She has alienated everyone by her really vengeful and spiteful behavior. And off to the convent she goes."
And while Goerke has "played a lot of baddies and it's really fun to play the baddies," she says she finds redeeming qualities in Eboli. "Think about the way that women react when they feel like they've been wronged, especially by men. I've seen this behavior from my friends. My goal is to have people understand why she did what she did. Nobody has to like, it but I have to find a way to make the audience understand the reason behind it even if it was the wrong choice."
Besides the story, Goerke calls the music in this piece incredible and forward-thinking. "It still has all the beauty and line of grand Italian opera. The fact that it's in French is just because it was commissioned by the Paris opera. The French is beautifully written. He used the language beautifully. I know the opera is often done in Italian (the 1884 version), but this was the language this piece was written in so that's something that's really, really cool."
Performances of Don Carlos (in French with English subtitles) by Giuseppe Verdi are 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, Thursday, April 19 and Saturday, April 28 as well as 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15 and Sunday, April 22 at the Wortham Theater Center. For ticket information, call 713-228-6737 or go to HoustonGrandOpera.org.